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What Goes Into Setting Up An Electric Guitar

Sometimes it's all in the set up ...


by Chris Loeffler




Guitar Setup isn't something every player aspires (or even feels comfortable) doing, but understanding the basic process can be key to understanding what your local "guitar guy" is doing and might help you articulate your particular wants and desires to them. Because every manufacturer has their own approach to construction, it's always important to consult the manufacurer's site or guitar manual for the specific guitar you're attempting to set up, but there are some general steps and guidelines that apply to all electric guitars (although guitars that have undergone the PLEK process generally require no additional setup other than what may be required by someone's personal taste).


Please note this article is not meant to be the end-all to guitar setup, which is a skillset developed over time and with experience, but rather as an overview of what's being done. Further reading/YouTube research is highly reccomedned if you're looking to tackle guitar setup yourself! Your local guitar guy is your friend!


There are five basic steps to setting up an electric guitar that are typical to getting any guitar set up to your presences- string guitar, straighten your neck, set string radius, adjust action, and set intonation.


Assuming you have installed the make and gauge of string you prefer to the guitar, the first step is to straighten your neck. It's important to do this before you even consider setting the action or making intonation adjustments, as a straight neck is the foundation of a properly set up guitar, and you’ll have to undo all the work you’ve done if you move forward and realize your neck wasn’t actually straightened. Straightening the neck almost always comes down to tightening (or loosening) your truss rod. The truss rod is the metal reinforcement rod in the neck of nearly every available guitar, although their exact type (dual action, single action, etc.) and placement varies from brand to brand. By carefully turning the rod, you’ll be able to adjust the tension for the appropriate amount of relief (counter-clockwise for more releif, clockwise for less) .


As recommended by HC community member Tonic2000, determining if your neck is straight is as simple as capoing at the first fret and pushing the low E string down at the 17th fret to see if the string is hitting all the frets or not. Please note most their will still stilll be some bow away from the strings, which provides the relief space for the strings to vibrate. If you want to try this out, make sure to reference the manufacturer’s material for your specific guitar to understand what type of truss rod system you are dealing with, and tighten slowly…no need to overtigthen and cause damage.


Now that your neck is set, you can focus on setting your string radius. Almost every guitar will have some curvature, referred to as radius, to its fretboard for comfort and playing ergonomics. To achieve a consistent playing experience among strings, it's important to set the strings to match the fretboard’s radius for an optimized, cohesive setup. String radius is almost always addressed at the bridge, where there is some form of mechanism with screws to adjust where each individual string sits.


Fender guitars tend to rest the strings on individual saddles. Gibson and Tune-o-Matic style bridges, by contrast, are anchored to the saddle before a stop tail at a fixed height and require filing or sanding in the off-chance you want to adjust the radius, as Tune-o-Matic bridges are already arched to the correct radius. Again, your owners manual is your guide here, but the act of setting your string radius to the fretboard is something every player should at least understand.


Now that your neck is straight and the string radius is matched to your fretboard radius, it’s time to adjust the action, or height, of the strings in relation to the frets. Depending on your playing style, you may prefer higher action, which makes the strings somewhat more difficult to play but increases sustain or lower action, while lower action plays easier and faster but tends to cut some sustain. Set your action too low and you’ll start introducing fret buzz as the strings brush the frets and in extreme cases, then can even be unpleasant muting.


Typically measured at the 12th fret (although the 1st fret can also be used as a reference point) action is a preference, and there is no industry standard to setting action other than making sure it’s not so high as to be unplayable nor so low that strings are touching the frets. Assuming the nut is in good standing, (according to HC user Tonic2000, the vast majority of commercially produced guitars have nuts that are pretty well cut), all the action adjustment for a player’s preference is meant to be done at the bridge. Following whatever guidelines are set by the manucaturar, you may find tweaks need to be made to the bridge. Because your radius is already set it will be a much simpler, quicker process.


Lastly, it’s time to set your intonation. Intonation means maintaining the integrity of your relative tuning throughout the fretboard. A poorly intonated guitar will sound out of tune as you play higher on the fretboard. Intonation is typically set at the 12th fret, and it is imperative to ensure the intonation is a close to perfect as physically possible between octaves for the sweetest sound.


To test intonation, tune your guitar (the more accurate the tuner, the more accurate the tuning) using the harmonic on the 12th fret of each string. Once they're tuned, play the fretted note on the 12th fret (no harmonic); they should be the same, but an improperly intonated guitar will reveal tuning issues. If the fretted note reads flat compared to the harmonic, the scale length needs to be shortened. If the fretted note reads sharp, the scale needs to be increased. There are two ways to adjust the scale; at the nut or at the bridge.


The bridge is typically the easier (and less permanent) approach, but a small group of certain intonation issues will be better served by filing the nuts seat against the fretboard. Assuming the bridge is the best approach, now that you know which way the bridge needs to move to adjust the scale, it’s as simple as referring to your guitar’s manual and making the tweak. This shouldn’t impact the radius or action you’ve already set, provided you’ve done it right.  -HC-




Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 


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Chris Loeffler  |  November 21, 2016 at 9:34 pm
The Reply function, for some reason, isn't posting (only Post Comment is), so I'm pasting Tonic2000's response- Hey, Chris, thanks for being so responsive to my suggestions. As you mention, guitar setup can be contentious, but the article is now a good introduction. Kudos to Harmony Central for being on the ball.
Chris Loeffler  |  November 21, 2016 at 5:30 pm
Thanks to Tonic2000 for the feedback! This article was written based on an interview with one local setup person and independently reviewed be a second for accuracy, but we knew this could be a contentious one! We've vetted several points brought up by Tonic2000 and integrated his recommended changes into the article (with attribution in two instances). As stated in the article, this article was intended more in the spirit of "How it Works", not "Go Out and Do It with No Further Research"! 
Tonic2000  |  November 21, 2016 at 3:56 pm
I am not a luthier, but I’ve done enough of my own guitar setups to know that this article is wrong or inaccurate in several places. Let’s start with “straighten your neck.” What we’re talking about here is the flatness of the fretboard. Laying a straight-edge on the neck does reveal how flat the neck is, but most people don’t have a perfect straight edge long enough to use. A much easier way is to capo at the first fret and push the low E string down at the 17th fret and then look to see if the string is hitting all the frets or not. (Ironically, this is the method illustrated by the photo.) And for the majority of guitars and players, the neck should not be set absolutely flat. Instead, there should be a very slight bow away from the strings, which provides room for the strings to vibrate. This is called “relief,” and using the technique above, typical relief (for example, Gibson factory spec) is measured at the seventh fret, so there is a gap of .012 inches between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. By the way, the article mentions adjusting the amount of “tension (or relief) the neck has against the strings,” which is a confusing way of referring to this adjustment, and doesn’t tell you what to do. To remove relief, tighten the truss rod by turning clockwise; to add relief, loosen the truss rod by turning counter-clockwise. Also unmentioned is that the truss rod adjustment needs to be made if you significantly change the gauge of your strings, because thicker strings, for example, pull the neck harder. Regarding radius, this is not “typically” addressed at the bridge, it is always addressed at the bridge, unless the nut is really screwed up, with some slots really deep and others too shallow. It is true that Fender guitars have individually adjustable saddle heights, but that doesn’t mean adjusting the radius is easy, as stated here. In fact, it’s much more difficult, because each string must be adjusted to create a very slight arc that matches the radius of the fretboard. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s tricky. Regarding Gibson bridges, the article says there’s only an “off-chance” that you would have to adjust the radius of the bridge, and this is true, but not because of the PLEK system. Tune-o-Matic bridges are already arched to the correct radius, and they’ve been that way since they were introduced in 1953. As long as the saddles have the slight notches needed to hold the strings, then the radius will be correct. The PLEK system is excellent, but it is responsible for cutting the nut depth and filing the frets - it does nothing to affect the radius at the bridge, as the article implies. And although Gibson guitars are now PLEKed, that’s only been true across the line since 2014. As for action, the article implies that most action adjustment is made at the nut and then “tweaked” at the bridge, while the opposite is actually true. The vast majority of commercially produced guitars have nuts that are pretty well cut, and all the action adjustment for a player’s preference is meant to be done at the bridge. Finally, to say that perfect intonation is impossible on a guitar because the guitar uses equal-temperament tuning is misleading. Equal temperament tuning does mean that the guitar, like virtually all modern instruments, including the piano, has tuning compromises built-in, so it can never be perfectly in tune everywhere. But intonation adjustment simply involves making sure the octave on each string matches the open note, and this can, and should, be done perfectly. And intonation is never adjusted at the nut except with specialized systems such as the Earvana nut or the Buzz Feiten tuning system. For all other guitars, intonation is only done at the bridge. I was quite disappointed and, frankly, alarmed for the sake of guitar beginners at the inaccuracy of this article. It’s an embarrassment to Harmony Central, which usually does a good job of providing reliable information.
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